Read: Congresswoman, interrupted
“She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding,” her filmmaker daughter Alexandra told CNN last month, describing her mother’s negotiating style. “That’s all you need to know about her. No one ever won betting against Nancy Pelosi. She’s persevered.”
That analysis could just as easily apply to her deft handling of the restive young Democrats, who just two months ago were grumbling that her day had passed and were all but openly wondering how they might block her from becoming speaker again. Now she’s the unquestioned heroine of the anti-Trump left, on par with the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg and rapidly climbing to the level of Eleanor Roosevelt, if not Joan of Arc.
Pelosi’s own public response to her reversal of fortune has been understated, but sly. Greeting the packed audience at her weekly news conference last Thursday, she simply said, “Wow, full house. Winning is good. Good morning.”
Read: Pelosi won, Trump lost
Pelosi co-opted the crop of insurgent Democratic freshmen who might have threatened her rule in part by pledging to serve only four years as speaker, but also by listening to their concerns and hearing them out, and addressing them. She has a healthy sense of her own status, but doesn’t let her ego get in the way of the task at hand.
“She knows how to count votes better than anybody,” says former Representative Tom Downey of New York, who grew close to her after she first came to Congress from San Francisco in a special election in 1987, two years before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born. “She’s perfectly politically centered to lead the new dynamic members of Congress, because she was once one of them. She gave her first speech on AIDS when she got to the Congress. She’s really absolutely the perfect person for this moment.”
Not coincidentally, her face-offs with Trump have solidified and consolidated her power over her own caucus. “That meeting inside the Oval Office where the president said he would own the shutdown elected her speaker that day,” Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, told me in the middle of the recent shutdown. “She was going to get there anyways, but even if you go out and see the coat she wore, it sold out the next day … She won it because she stood up to him.” McCarthy added bluntly, “She wants to break him.”
Read: Why the new Democratic majority could work better than the last
So far, she’s doing a pretty good job of it. The writer Aaron Sorkin once called the White House the “single greatest home-court advantage in the modern world,” and it’s tough to make a president look weak on his own turf, but Pelosi managed to do so. Indeed, the speaker tends to deal with Trump as if brushing a piece of lint off her shoulder.
“It goes to show you,” she reportedly told a closed-door meeting of Democrats after her December confrontation in the Oval Office. “You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.” The Washington Post reported that she added, “It’s like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him.” Still later, she mocked Trump’s ever-shifting definition of his proposed border wall, telling USA Today, “He’s already backed off the cement—now he’s down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something.”